After not having any preseason scrimmages to prepare for the season, some jitters from the Blue Devils were to be expected Friday.
Luckily for Duke, it was able to find a rhythm and win its first two matches at the Duke Invitational.
The 21st-ranked Blue Devils knocked off North Florida Friday afternoon 25-22, 25-10 and 25-19 before overcoming a determined High Point squad 25-19, 25-19, 15-25 and 25-23 in an entertaining night game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke was able to persevere despite several tense moments in both matches, which was the ultimate goal for a team that lost three key contributors from last year’s ACC championship squad and rested reigning ACC Player of the Year Emily Sklar to give inexperienced players more opportunities.
“We’re trying new things as a team,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “I was excited today [that] I was able to see a lot of people in a competitive setting, and that’s awesome. We can see how they responded and if they panicked or if we pulled together as a team. [These matches were] wonderful for us.”
In their first game of the season against the Ospreys (0-2), the Blue Devils struggled to find their footing against an unfamiliar opponent and committed seven errors early in the match.
But as would become common throughout the day, Duke (2-0) was better than its foe in clutch situations and was able to pull out the first set.
Led by senior outside hitter Jeme Obeime and sophomore middle blockers Jordan Tucker and Alyse Whitaker, the Blue Devils pulled away in sets two and three thanks to dynamic offensive production.
Obeime, Tucker and Whitaker combined for 36 kills and sparked Duke’s 39 percent attacking percentage thanks to individual percentages of 50 or better to allow the Blue Devils to successfully adjust to heavy lineup changes and new personnel.
“We had never seen [North Florida] play, and we had a lot of nerves and jitters,” Obeime said. “We also played everybody, so we had a lot of changes in the lineup. We had to push through that and got a bit more comfortable towards the end.”
For the most part, Duke’s level of comfort continued in the beginning of the match against High Point.
Despite struggling offensively in the early match, the Blue Devil defense allowed Duke to stay comfortably ahead in the first two sets and claim them without too much stress.
The Panthers (1-1) struggled mightily coming off their five-set win against Furman (1-1) earlier in the day, posting ice-cold attacking percentages of 9.7 and 11.5 in the first two frames.
But High Point rallied in set three after a 10-minute break between sets, dominating Duke in all facets of the game and playing with more energy than the home team.
The Panthers never trailed and outperformed the Blue Devils in every major statistical category, most noticeably with their 54.2 percent attacking clip.
The fourth set was a seesaw battle that saw four lead changes, three of which came after High Point jumped out to a 10-4 lead.
Tucker and Obeime eventually willed their team to victory, combining for nine kills in the final set and infusing enough energy in their teammates to break a 23-23 deadlock and end the match.
“High Point played really well and they blocked us [particularly] well in sets three and four,” Nagel said. “We just needed to be a little smarter, and they were taking it to us. It pushed us, and we’re going to learn from it. At the same time, we were able to pull back together and finish, which is great.”
Although Duke was playing with lots of new faces in the lineup, its insistence on ending the match in four sets was reminiscent of the grit last year’s decorated squad showed throughout the season and did not go unnoticed by the team’s leaders.
The Blue Devil defense also stiffened when it needed to most, holding High Point to a paltry 4.7 percent on the attack in the final stanza.
“The fourth [set] was really crucial to just [tough] it out, take care of it and make sure it didn’t go to a fifth,” Obeime said.
Duke has little time to dwell on its first two wins, as the Blue Devils will take the floor again for their third game in two days against Furman Saturday at 3 p.m.
Duke’s ability to show more consistency and make quick adjustments on the fly will be tested as it caps off its annual tournament.
“I’m pleased with the day; the team is pretty tired physically and mentally, which we should be when we have to play a hard match,” Nagel said. “But we have to do some things a little bit better. I would like to see us setting up our blocks a little bit better so we can get more touches on defense.”